Asimov, Isaac (1920-1992)

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Asimov, Isaac (1920-1992)

Scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov made his reputation in both fields with his prolific writings and his interest in the popularization of science. Asimov published over three hundred books and a considerable number of short stories, essays, and columns. He is considered to be a founding figure in the field of science fiction in his rejection of the space-adventure formula in favor of a more directly scientific, social, and political aproach. He established several central conventions for the genre, including robotics and the idea of a galactic empire. Asimov was also extremely influential through his nonfiction writings, producing popular introductory texts and textbooks in biochemistry.

Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia, on January 2, 1920, and moved to America with his family when he was three years old. He first discovered science fiction through the magazines sold in his father's candy store, and in 1938 he began writing for publication. He sold his story "Marooned Off Vesta" to Amazing Stories the following year, when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University. That same year, he sold his story "Trends" to John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and it was through his creative relationship with Campbell that Asimov developed an interest in the social aspects of science fiction.

Campbell's editorial policy allowed Asimov to pursue his interest in science fiction as a literature that could respond to problems arising in his contemporary period. In "Half-Breed" (1941), for example, he discussed racism, and in "The Martian Way," he voiced his opposition to McCarthyism. Asimov's marked ambivalence about the activities of the scientific community is a major characteristic of his writing. Later novels examined the issue of scientific responsibility and the power struggles within the scientific community. Asimov himself was a member of the Futurians, a New York science-fiction group which existed from 1938 to 1945 and was notable for its radical politics and belief that science fiction fans should be forward-looking and help shape the future with their positive and progressive ideas.

Asimov spent the Second World War years at the U.S. Naval Air Experimental Station as a research scientist in the company of fellow science-fiction writers L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Heinlein. He made a name for himself as a writer in 1941 with the publication of "Nightfall," which is frequently anthologized as an example of good science fiction and continues to top readers' polls as their favorite science fiction story. During this period, Asimov also started work on the series of stories that would be brought together as the "Foundation Trilogy" and published as the novels Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). Asimov has stated that their inception came from reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Asimov's other significant series comprises his robot stories, collected in I, Robot (1950), The Rest of the Robots (1964), and further collections in the 1980s. Two novels—The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1956)—bring together a detective and his robotic partner, fusing Asimov's interest in mystery with his interest in science fiction. He also wrote several stories about the science fiction detective Wendell Worth during the same period. It is the third story of the robot series, "Liar!" (1941), that introduced "The Three Laws of Robotics," a formulation that has had a profound effect upon the genre.

In 1948 Asimov received his doctorate in biochemistry and a year later took up a position with the Boston University School of Medicine as an associate professor. He remained there until 1958 when he resigned the post in order to concentrate on his writing career. He remained influential in the sci-fi genre by contributing a monthly science column to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy for the next thirty years, but his aim during this period was to produce popular and accessible science writing. During the 1950s he had published juvenile fiction for the same purpose under the pseudonym of Paul French. In 1960 he published The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science, which has gone through several editions and is now known as Asimov's New Guide to Science. In the interest of popular science he also produced a novelization in 1966 of the film Fantastic Voyage. However, he also wrote in vastly different fields and published Asimov's Guide to the Bible in 1968 and Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare in 1970.

Asimov returned to science-fiction writing in 1972 with the publication of The Gods Themselves, a novel that was awarded both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. In this later stage of his career Asimov produced other novels connected with the "Foundation" and "Robot" series, but he also published novels with new planetary settings, such as Nemesis in 1989. His influence continued with his collections of Hugo Award winners and the launch of Isaac Asimov Science Fiction Magazine in 1977. Overall his contribution lies in his thought-provoking attitude to science and its place in human society. Asimov helped transform immediate postwar science fiction from the space formula of the 1930s into a more intellectually challenging and responsible fiction. He died of heart and kidney failure on April 6, 1992.

—Nickianne Moody

Further Reading:

Asimov, Isaac. I, Asimov: A Memoir. New York, Doubleday, 1994.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982; revised, Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Miller, Marjorie Mithoff. Isaac Asimov: A Checklist of Works Published in the United States. Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1972.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin H. Greenberg, editors. Isaac Asimov. New York, Taplinger, 1977.

Slusser, George. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of His Science Fiction. New York, Borgo Press, 1979.

Touponce, William F. Isaac Asimov. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1991.